Fat Pig

I haven’t posted anything here in a while.  Partly that’s down to plain old busy-ness.  Partly – and probably a more significant part – is that I’m grappling with the fact that this tiny little anonymous blog of mine is changing.  Specifically, it’s becoming more and more identifiable with me and my academic pursuits.  Which poses a problem for me re how to manage what has so far been an essentially-personal-if-somewhat-theoretically-inclined style of writing in light of possible recognition by colleagues and even future employers.  On the one hand, I’m feeling that the essentially personal is now too personal.  On the other, I think the personal is absolutely central to the (or at least my) project of fat studies.  It is quite blatantly because I live a fat body that I am doing this work, that I am interested in this research, these conversations, these experiences.  My academic pursuits are about my body; they could not be more personal.  My thesis research is directly motivated by my experiences of sexuality as a fat subject; it could not be more intimate.  The reality of this is blatantly apparent every time I stand in front of an audience and give a paper, and as much as academic language can provide a sort of distance, the material fact of my body refuses any attempt to hide.

I think the personal is important, is a real a proper subject of inquiry.  I think auto-ethnography can be a wonderfully illuminating methodology (see Sam Murray’s work for an example of just how brilliant and important it can be).  I’m not doing auto-ethnographic research for my thesis (though in many ways, I might as well be), but I do use this blog to connect my personal experiences with theory (though not always explicitly, and not always successfully).

There’s a wonderful quote I came across in an undergrad creative writing class, which sums up what I’m trying to say:

“There is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully preserved, of some autobiography”
 – Paul Valéry

All of which is to preface another essentially personal entry that I’ve had a hard time coming to write.

Two weeks ago, The Socialist and I headed up to Brisbane.  The impetus for the trip was to see the Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which I’m thesising about.  I also had the pleasure of (briefly) meeting Natalie, Nick, Sonya, Janey, and Zoe, who just happened to be going to the same performance.  You can read Natalie’s thoughts about the play here.

[I’m going to warn for spoilers, even though the production run has finished now.]

I saw another production of Fat Pig by the Sydney Theatre Company back in 2006, and it was a markedly different production, which leads me to a slightly different reading of the production.  I think Natalie makes some excellent points, particularly that, this production especially, is essentially “a story about how terribly hard it is for hetero men to select partners and play mates alike when there are only thin, shrieking women and fat pigs on offer”.  As Natalie says,  Jeanie is a horrible caricature of all the worst traits misogynist culture assigns to women – she’s shrill, shallow, posey, emotionally unstable, insecure, needy, obsessed with finding a husband, manipulative, aggressive but essentially powerless, uses her physical beauty to get what she wants . . . she’s a walking stereotype.  Jeanie’s opposite, Helen (the eponymous ‘fat pig’) is much more appealing – she’s funny, smart, self-deprecating, and genuine.  She’s probably the only likeable character in the play.  A generous interpretation of the direction might assume that playing Jeanie as hyper-shrill and completely obnoxious was an attempt to show Helen as even more sympathetic, and more desirable.  For me, though, it was simply shrieking misogyny.  It leaves no options for women – you can either be a lovely person but a fat pig who will end up alone; or you can be a shrill bitch but beautiful, and end up with an equally obnoxious and shallow male counterpart (Carter).

To be fair, the men fare little better.  Tom, the supposed ‘nice guy’, is an emotional coward.  The play’s central conflict is his inability to be honest with his friends (‘friends’), his paralysing fear of judgement.  He won’t admit to being with Helen because he fears being mocked and ridiculed – and when Tom and Helen are outed as a couple, that’s exactly what happens.  He won’t tell Jeanie honestly and straight-forwardly that he doesn’t want to see her anymore.  He won’t tell Carter that he doesn’t really like him or want him around.  It’s telling that all Tom’s ‘friends’ are actually workmates.  It’s telling that he doesn’t really enjoy their company, but that he is nonetheless completely beholden to their opinions.  The play doesn’t leave any options for men, either – you can either be a complete, unapologetic douchebag, and end up with a shrieking-but-skinny girlfriend; or you can try to be genuine and find something that actually makes you happy, but be unable to bear the judgement and end up alone.

The STC production was a lot more subtle.  It was still the same story, of course, and the same bleak ending (it’s Neil LaBute, after all).  But Carter was not quite so purely douchey, and Jeanie was actually relateable as a character.  I won’t say likeable, or even sympathetic, but she was played in a way that made you understand that the culture at large manoeuvres women into just these sorts of roles.  Helen (played by the divinely gorgeous Katrina Milosevic, who I once had the pleasure of serving when I worked at My Size and was completely smitten with her) was a slightly more subdued character.  Tom was . . . still an emotional coward.

The QTC also made some interesting choices in the mis-en-scene, most specifically the inter-titles.  Each scene in the play text is titled, and QTC chose to display these titles on a screen which provided the backdrop for the stage.  The first title “That First Meeting With Her” was displayed in yellow, san serif text on a red background.  Sound familiar?  Yep, just like a McDonald’s ad.  The title for “A Surprising Night Out Together” was a Japanese-inspired background, which made sense given they were at a Japanese restaurant.  The decision to add the word ‘Sumo’ to the background (presumably to indicate the name of the restaurant), however, was entirely unnecessary, and confirms my sneaking suspicion that the production was trying to have it both ways – playing up (and even creating) fat jokes for cheap laughs*, at the same time as telling a story about the incredibly destructive effects of fat hatred.

And fat hatred is incredibly destructive.  Unlike Natalie, I have dated people who’ve given in to societal pressure rather than admit they were attracted to a fat girl.  My First Really Bad Relationship was kept secret because of the shame and disgust around fat sex.  I saw the 2006 STC production with an ex-lover who had a declared preference for fat girls.  After the show, he talked about how closeting sucks, how in the past he’d dated thinner girls than what he was really attracted to because of that social pressure.   Hanne Blanke also has a great section on ‘the case of the closeted fat admirer’ in her excellent book Big Big Love.  This shit is, unfortunately, real.  And it’s really, really painful.

I saw the play this time with a current lover who was saddened and appalled by what happens.  When we talked about it afterwards, he admitted that there was a time when he might have been more concerned about other people’s judgement about having a fat lover (although The Socialist is technically obese according to BMI, I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘fat’).  I admit that I’m still concerned about other people’s judgements of who I’m with, not least because I have a culturally-conditioned fear of judgement along the lines of  “Oh, she’s so fat, that’s the best she can do” (which is something the play talks about, too).

Official, scholarly research-y reasons aside, the trip to Brisbane was also a slightly early anniversary celebration for The Socialist and I.  (Huh. Almost a year. And I thought this would just be brief fling.)  We stayed in a fancy hotel with a view of the river and a pool and motherfucking king sized beds and a two-person bathtub and a tv in the goddamn bathroom and we got room service breakfast and played at being rich for the weekend.  Hell yeah it was awesome.  It’s also far beyond anything I could have afforded as a single traveller.  It was more fun and more relaxing than most of the travel I’ve done previously, which has been almost exclusively travelling on my own.  It brought home to me, once again, just how much privilege is involved in coupledom – not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of emotional resources.  To not have to psych myself up to go out for dinner alone, to not have to deal with a stranger’s resentment at my hip encroaching on their plane seat, to not feel sad that I was there alone with all the attendant cultural baggage, was a huge relief.  And that’s why the personal matters, because it tells me about the cultural, the theoretical, the political.

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*Check out Fat Heffalump’s ‘Debrief’ for more evidence of this.  Thankfully, the audience was not so vile the night I went.

6 Replies to “Fat Pig”

    1. You’re welcome! I actually put off reading your post until after I’d seen the play because I didn’t want my reading to be too influenced by others. I’m glad the audience wasn’t as hideous the night I went, but the whole production was definitely played for laughs.

  1. I have found your site by accident and just read your review. I haven’t seen the play, or know anything about it, but your comments made an impact. The inherent premise of the social pressures on women to be ‘perfect’, are universal. These pressures resonate throughout our lives and, not only stop us reaching our full potential, but take so much joy from our lives which we all deserve. We women, the people who love us and society in general are therefore the worse for it.

    I celebrate and applaud any woman who stands up and says…..
    ‘I will not accept your negative judgements of me. I will not let your views impoverish my life. Any problems you have with who I am are your problems and yours alone. I will not be bullied, harassed or made to feel inadequate. I will venture forth with courage, excitement and enthusiasm. I will not associate with shallow people who are not strong enough or brave enough to look into their own hearts, let alone see mine. My size, my culture, my sexuality and my beliefs are who I am and, if I decide to share any part of myself with you, it’s because you see me and appreciate me for all that I am.”

    I’m 56 years old and it has taken me all this time to realise that the way I’ve been categorised all my life is wrong. Everyone who told me I should be something I wasn’t was wrong but, most of all, I was wrong for believing them. I believed my mother when she told me that I could be so attractive if I lost some weight; I believed my husband who continually told me to diet and exercise and looked at me with such distaste at times; I believed the media who said that no one would want me, because I was middle aged and overweight, when I finally found the courage to leave my marriage.

    I should have listened to my wonderful daughters who celebrated my freedom 3 years ago, who told me I was beautiful and intelligent and who encouraged my tentative steps towards a new life. But we never listen to the positive things that people say, even when they come from the people we love the most. We become so used to listening to the negative voices that dominate in our head because that’s who we become; a product of all the judgements, lies and bullshit that we’re fed all our lives. It takes strength and fortitude to tell the voices to go to hell!

    So here I am…56, fat, living alone…and I’ve never been happier in my life! My life is an adventure and I am living it the way I should have done years ago. Maybe we mellow at this age, because I meet people all the time who seem to love my company and don’t judge me negatively. I have a wonderful job, amazing friends, a fantastic family and a lover who adores me and my body. I also have a new belief in myself and the courage to take risks.

    My only regret is that I wasted so much time thinking that if I lost weight my life would change. That’s such a lie. We change our lives with our attitude, not by shedding kilos.

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